Bittermelons and Brownies: Introduction

Introduction: There are no recipes for Living

I begin with a disclaimer. I don’t follow recipes and nor do I expect you to. It is ironic of me to write a “cookbook.” I prefer expressed irony to hidden hypocrisy.  Irony is funny, inquisitive and open to other perspectives. Hypocrisy is not. These loose “recipes” are simply ways to remember that everyday we can be mindful and creative just by thoughtfully eating something.

I’m old enough to have experienced tectonic shifts in my own perspective. For me, in my 20s, self-sufficiency had been the mark of an adult.  In my 30s, as a mom and academic, productivity and efficiency had become my mantra. Now well into my 40s, I am the happiest I’ve ever been having shed my attachment to productive autonomy. Surely my thoughts at the moment are marked by where I am, a proud mom watching her baby fly. So take my words with a healthy dose of questioning and adjust to taste. Like people, recipes evolve.

Recipe for Growing Amani

When Amani was little she often heard me say “be a strong independent woman.” I may have been channeling my grandmother. Named after the Mughal emperor Akbar, Akbarunessa had a hard coating of authority about her, having lost her father and then her husband young. My grandmother cooked for herself, in a makeshift kitchen built into a corner of a long and wide veranda. In her little pot, the growing Dhaka city converged. She had two small gas burners and a sink not much larger than a loaf of bread. The old ice-crusted refrigerator stood awkwardly out of place in an adjoining bedroom. Her veranda kitchen hovered over a bed flowers and faced a garden complete with mango trees and flowering pulmeria.

The long winding and wrap-around veranda also held an easy chair, where she would recline and read with a cup of tea perched on the armrest. She spent her mornings hovered over her paring knife and vegetables. In the afternoon she would have lunch and then rest while listening to the radio. At four o’clock, she would make herself tea and wait for my aunts and mom to visit. At dusk she would water her garden with her metal watering can. Dinner at eight would be leftovers from lunch, carefully reheated over the stove in her tiny garden kitchen to the soundtrack of crickets. Her day ended by turning off the television and covering it with a large lace doily.

My seven-year old-self found this semi-solitary day lived by the beat of cooking and eating, strange and magical. She did all this in her corner of a large shared house surrounded by an even larger garden complete with mango, guava, papaya, eucalyptus, limes, roses, gardenia, jasmine and more. My uncle, her youngest and his family lived on the same floor as she did and we along with my mom, her eldest, lived on the second floor. It was a full house with at least two more large kitchens. But, my grandmother for whatever reason chose to cook and feed herself. I don’t know the history of the tiny makeshift veranda kitchen. I felt lucky on the occasions she invited me to eat lunch with her. For a no-nonsense stoic family figurehead, she was a surprisingly delicate cook. She cooked with calm, deliberate motions. Dare I say, she found cooking pleasurable. The only thing I didn’t like when I ate with her was the necessary Bengali first course:  bitter-melon bhaji and rice. It was the angry gatekeeper to a delicious fish or chicken curry to come. I still don’t like bitter melon but I have the fondest of memories around it.

Bad experiences don’t necessarily evolve into bad memories.

Thinking back, her odd self-feeding ritual despite being surrounded by family reads like a radical feminist effort to be self-sufficient. Maybe, for her, cooking was a statement of independence. Maybe it was a way to remain active and creative? I will never know.

I imagine for a little girl, “be a strong independent woman” seemed a harsh dictate. Amani, my first-born, is one of the most independent thinking, resilient and driven women I know.

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